My research lately has focussed on the future of work. In particular, I've been interested in what's known as the graduate outlook: what employers expect of university graduates and how university graduates have fared in terms of work. I've looked more broadly than this, into expectations of how work generally is expected to change, and I've looked more narrowly too, at the future of lawyers' work.
It is clear that work is changing for nearly everyone. For example, it is anticipated that we will increasingly see widespread reskilling, or 'upskilling', as industries transform in the face of new technologies. Our entire workforce then will need to be adaptable: capable of retraining to suit rapidly changing workplaces, and rapidly changing work.
Against this background, we offer further and higher education that locks young people into long term learning—over years. While students are learning, they are competing with each other for placements and internships, frequently unpaid, to give themselves an edge, or an (unproven) entree into full time work. This 'try before you buy' system for industry has effectively been endorsed by the Federal government. It is seen as a necessary step into the workforce. To the extent that it puts all the onus on the worker to prove themselves—to an unknown standard, and without pay—I challenge this assumption. I challenge it especially to the extent that it absolves employers of responsibilities towards employees, especially when they are young people.
I spend a lot of time with young people, around Australia. Uni students—and I am especially familiar with law students—are constantly applying for internships or work experience, and for volunteer positions in community organisations. Frequently, having invited applications, the firm or organisation will not even acknowledge receipt.
I see young people on low wages, required to show up to work at any time on pain of dismissal. I see poor students unable to take unpaid internships, wondering how they can compete against more affluent students who can.
Recently on a ride to the airport my Uber driver, Genet, told me that her son had qualified in construction. Over four years he applied for jobs. Every time he was shortlisted, he was given a day's work, unpaid, then not kept on. He continued to apply, she said, out of love for her.
He felt he would let her down if he gave up. Eventually, she said, the toll on him was too great. She told him that he need not keep applying for her sake. She now worries about him, as his feelings of self-worth have taken such a beating. She feels sorrow at comments that he—and other young people like him—are 'lazy'. These young adults are not lazy, she said. They are beaten by the system. Some she has seen turn to drugs as an outlet, and she worries about that too.
Genet told me that we, as mothers, cannot stand by and see our children subjected to exploitation and eventually, hopelessness. She believes that we must talk to each other: to our sisters, our mothers, and our friends.
"It is not enough to hold employees to account while employers, invoking 'efficiency' and the profit motive, churn through workers as some other disposable input."
Ultimately, she believes that we women must raise our voices and tell these stories about our children and grandchildren. We must advocate for change that will engage a whole of society approach in supporting young people into work.
I find Genet's call compelling: as a mother of young adults, as an educator, and as a member of a profession. In the face of likely widespread transformation in work in particular, I agree that we must re-negotiate the role of industry as a partner in developing our workforce and in doing so, playing an important social role.
While respecting young people's self-determination, it is still possible, indeed desirable, to implement norms of care within the work environment, that provide both personal and financial support as young people transition into work.
As we stand on the precipice of a workforce revolution we need to re-think labour; to re-negotiate the basis of our workplace relations. Employees are not cost centres, and work is more than a transaction.
It is not enough to hold employees to account while employers, invoking 'efficiency' and the profit motive, churn through workers as some other disposable input. This will never form the basis of 'dignity of work'.
Kate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.
Main image: Michael Sukkar
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03 August 2017
Thanks Kate for a nice article. It is certainly tough being young at the moment, though the rapid loss of baby-boomers from the workforce over next few years should make it a lot better. However, even then there need to be huge changes in the "national culture" of work to cope with AI etc as well as over production of uni graduates with false expectations. There are some ultimate biological truths that "WE" have tried to pretend don`t exist by trying to tertiary educate more and more as if suitable traditional graduate jobs will just appear. Unfortunately, or not, there is a bell-curve for intellectual/eduactional ability however measured...IQ as good at anything. Broadly society can be divided into 5 groups on this basis which historically has done quite well for fitting person against career, although there are always exceptions at the edges, and coaching/parental wealth and networks can affect things a bit but not the pattern overall. So at the top 20% end there will be highly educated and trained professions, then the white collar and technical people, then tradies, then after that with IQs below 85-90 increasingly manual workers of one sort or another, with varying skill levels. For this to work and for there to be drift upwards one needs a bouyent economy and as few restrictions to employment as reasonable and safe. A poor economy and lots of restrictions and things get pushed downwards with higher unemployment and fewer good jobs. Australia has been very lucky but not very clever in its recent policies around employment. But the future may just have fewer jobs to go round anyway with new IT, so there needs to be new approaches, such as restricted hours per individual and guaranteed live-able decent basic incomes provided by the State, paid for by taxing wealth...and there will be lots of that.
03 August 2017
Kate has raised an issue of the most fundamental importance in my opinion amongst young people and those much older. How work is changing and developing is now starting to race ahead, cows are being milked by robotics, bricks are being laid also by robotics. Young worker are being exploited in many different ways in many industries. In the past workers who felt they were being exploited formed unions and stood up for themselves. In the church people formed Christian Worker Movements, in fact last month the World Movement of Christian Worker's met in Spain, 74 countries were represented. Hopefully workers from many industries in Australia
including the young students Kate mentions will realise that they need to organise and defend themselves, when they do the union movement will be there to help them along. I have been a union member since I started work at the age of 14 in 1955 and will go to my grave a life member of the United Firefighters Union, the UFU. and proud of it.
05 August 2017
I think that this article raises the question of how worthwhile activity can receive the recognition which allows it to negotiate for worthwhile activity from another.
Throughout our history there's always been a lag between what receives the money reward and what is worthwhile activity.
Is it so very difficult to identify truly important 'work' and give those engaged in it purchasing power?
05 August 2017
A rather insightful article and one which I hope politicians; academic administrators and employers will read and take onboard. Sadly, given their usual lack of insight, I fear not. We are, as a nation, heading into a Brave New World economically and I do not think it is necessarily going to be a good one. Our educational system is out of sync with national needs. I think we need to look at countries like Germany, where universities were once free and now have minuscule fees compared with ours making them far more accessible to all. Universities have tended to concentrate of full fee paying overseas students rather than locals. This needs to be addressed. The facilities and standard of education at places such as my alma mater, Melbourne, seems to have gone down since the late 60s and early 70s. We also need to provide more career paths for those not suited to tertiary education as they do in Germany through a comprehensive system of apprenticeships in concert with industry. It is, as you say, something of vital importance to our collective future.